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LUSAKA (Reuters) – Zambia’s parliament has passed a law that will pave the way for oil exploration by international firms before the end of this year, Mines Minister Kalombo Mwansa said on Tuesday.

Mwansa told Reuters the petroleum exploration and production law had been sent to acting President Rupiah Banda to be signed.

Zambia would then invite international oil firms to submit bids for exploration in northwestern Zambia, bordering oil-rich Angola, where soil samples sent to European laboratories confirmed the existence of oil.

Mwansa said Zambia had lifted its suspension of oil exploration, a measure that was imposed pending the passage of a comprehensive law, and had defined oil blocks to enable foreign firms to tender for their areas of interest.

He said the process of issuing tenders should be completed within two months.

Under the new law, oil firms would initially be granted exploration licences and would gain production licences if they made finds big enough to sustain commercial production.

“A holder of a petroleum exploration licence shall commence exploration within 90 days, or such further period as the minister may allow, from the grant of the licence,” the law states.

It also says investors would be given two years to start development and production after gaining production licences.

The foreign firms would be expected to train and employ Zambians and adhere to strict environmental, health and safety regulations, and a state-run national oil firm would be set up.

Mwansa said the government had set up an oil exploration technical committee to supervise and award licences.

The law granted the country’s president powers to repossess land held by influential traditional leaders and award it to foreign investors to conduct oil exploration, in what analysts see as a move to remove barriers to oil development.

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